A federal judge declared Pennsylvania's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional Tuesday.

The ruling by Judge John E. Jones III would make Pennsylvania the last Northeast state to allow same-sex marriages, although the state could challenge the decision before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Several couples sued the state in July for the right to marry in Pennsylvania or to have their out-of-state same-sex marriages recognized. A 1996 state law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"Plaintiffs suffer a multitude of daily harms, for instance in the area of child-rearing, healthcare, taxation and end-of–life planning," Jones said in his 39-page written opinion.

He called the couples who brought the case "courageous" and said his ruling brings the court in line with "12 federal district courts across the country which, when confronted with these inequities in their own states, have concluded that all couples deserve equal dignity in the realm of civil marriage."

The state's Democratic attorney general, Kathleen Kane, had declined to defend the law in court. GOP Gov. Tom Corbett took up the case, however, with lawyers for his administration arguing that states have the right to determine the definition of marriage.

On Monday, a federal judge in Oregon overturned Oregon's ban on same-sex marriage. State officials there declined to defend a ban, citing last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that tossed out key parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Judges have tossed out similar bans in a half dozen states since the Supreme Court decision.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit, filed by the state American Civil Liberties Union, claimed the state's own Defense of Marriage Act and its refusal to marry lesbian and gay couples or recognize their out-of-state marriages violates the fundamental right to marry — and, by discriminating based on sexual orientation, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The ACLU scheduled rallies across the state regardless of the ruling. The decision means those rallies will be celebrations.

Jones concluded his opinion by noting that in the 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education challenged the premise of separate but equal, "'separate' has thankfully faded into history and only 'equal' remains."

He said the term "same-sex marriage" will be abandoned in favor of "marriage" someday.

"We are a better people than what these laws represent," Jones wrote. "It is time to discard them into the ash heap of history."

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